By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Last summer, the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province joyfully celebrated the priestly ordinations of four men. A little over a month later, two of those men arrived in the Central American country of Belize for their yearlong pastoral ministry assignment. Young priests are in high demand, so assigning two to Belize demonstrates a significant commitment by the province. The reasons behind this commitment become clear when one understands the needs of the Church in Belize.
Located on the Caribbean coast of Central America, Belize is a nation blessed with natural beauty and a rich history, but economically poor by American standards. One challenge, from a Catholic perspective, is a dearth of priests. A scholastic of the USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province, Josh Hinchie, SJ, created a map of the province, showing the number of priests per thousand Catholics. Within the province boundaries, the greatest need by far is in Brownsville, Texas, where Fr. Provincial Thomas P. Greene assigned three priests last year, and Belize. There are only six diocesan priests serving the entire country. The UCS Province has 12 men, including eight priests, assigned to Belize. Among them are Fathers Thomas Croteau, SJ, and David Kiblinger, SJ, who were ordained in June 2022.
“Finding the right assignment for Jesuits is one of my favorite parts of the job,” said Fr. Greene, adding that it’s a discernment process made in consultation with the Jesuit and the provincial’s consultors and assistants. “The pieces all have to come together. I consider not only their skill set and interests, but also the needs of the people of God and province resources.”
Assigning two new priests to Belize is a way to help the local Church and give Fathers Croteau and Kiblinger a unique formative experience.
“A year in the field, being immersed with the poor, will be good for them,” Fr. Greene said. “Both are pastoral by nature; both have hearts for the poor.”
The Urban Parish: St. Martin de Porres
When Fr. David Kiblinger, SJ, arrived at St. Martin de Porres Parish in Belize City, Belize, Pastor Andrés Vall-Serra, SJ, had a page full of projects for him to take on. While there’s no such thing as a “typical” day, Fr. Kiblinger reports that he’s begun to establish a rhythm of Masses, sick visits, funerals, teaching classes, office work and the not-to-be-underestimated ministry of presence to the people of the neighborhood.
“It’s a great assignment for a pastoral year,” Fr. Kiblinger reports. “I’m preaching at least five times a week, if not daily, depending on whether there are weddings and funerals. As a deacon, I was on Sunday rotation every third week, so I had plenty of time to prepare. Here, I latch onto an idea, trust in the Spirit and go with it.”
St. Martin de Porres Parish is an anchor in Belize City, so much so that the area around it is referred to as St. Martin’s. It even appears on the sides of police vehicles patrolling the neighborhood. It is in the south of the city, where incomes are low and crime rates are high. Gangs wreak violence and anxiety – and an unfortunate number of funerals of young people.
“Trauma is endemic in the Martin’s area,” said Fr. Brian Christopher, SJ, superior of the Jesuits in Belize. “So many of our neighbors walk around carrying the deep wounds of violence, poverty and neglect. Our first job is to walk with them in such a way that they know that they are loved. Then the healing can begin.”
Father Kiblinger agrees. “This is certainly a place in the province where we’re really accompanying people who are in need, in need of healing – spiritually and physically – from the day-to-day stress that it takes to live here, to feed their children, to make a make a life for themselves,” he said.
In many ways, St. Martin’s is a typical Jesuit parish in that it brings a cross-section of people together, including many more affluent Belizeans who travel from all over the Belize City area.
“St. Martin’s is that place where people find life,” Fr. Kiblinger said. “I had a woman tell me that she comes to Martins on weekends to get her shot in the arm from our lively liturgy.”
He hopes the vibrancy of the parish will speak to young people, especially young men, so they can see alternatives to gang life. “I want to find ways to attract them that gives some direction and purpose to their lives,” he said.
The Rainforest Parish: St. Peter Claver
Father Thomas Croteau, SJ, recalls a moment early in his vocation journey when he heard a priest talk about an island nation where one priest served the inhabitants of 50 far-flung islands. Each island had Mass only once a year. “As soon as I heard this, I thought, ‘Sign me up, ordain me and send me off. That way they’ll get Mass two times a year.’ That desire has remained – to serve where the need is great.”
In July, Fr. Croteau joined Jesuit Fathers Matt Ruhl and Sam Wilson at St. Peter Claver Parish in Punta Gorda, Belize, where the need is indeed great. The 160-year-old parish covers more than 1,700 square miles in the southern part of Belize and serves approximately 10,000 Catholics.
“The southern-most area of Belize is the most neglected part of the country, economically, educationally, politically and in terms of healthcare,” Fr. Christopher said. “Yet the people here are sustained by their incredibly deep faith.”
With a population of just over 5,000 souls, Punta Gorda is the only town in the Toledo District of Belize. The rest of the area is tropical rainforests dotted with small villages. The parish serves 35 separate villages, each with a small church and school. The Jesuits visit each village on rotation, making it to each only a few times each year.
“If the conditions are decent, you can get to the nearest village in about 45 minutes; it’s two and half hours to the farthest one,” Fr. Croteau says. However, since it’s a rainforest, and the roads aren’t paved, it’s rare that the driving conditions are “decent.”
Each village has one or more catechists who oversee the operations of the village church. They lead communion services on Sundays, preside at funerals, visit the sick and prepare people for sacraments.
Most of the villagers are subsistence farmers, who grow the same crops using the same techniques their ancestors have for hundreds of years. Most are descendants of Maya or Garifuna and speak Qʼeqchiʼ or Mopan at home. Masses are in their native language, which Fr. Croteau is still just beginning to learn.
“It’s a big deal when they get to have Mass,” Fr. Croteau says. “It’s beautiful. The people don’t hold back. When they sing, everybody’s singing. When they proclaim the word, they do it with all their heart. To be able to pray with the folks in the village churches on Sundays is a very beautiful experience.”
Fathers Croteau and Kiblinger are flourishing in their assignments, and both are clearly being marked by the experience – fulfilling one of Fr. Greene’s wishes: “My hope for David and Thomas is that, in the best way possible, their hearts will be broken open, so that wherever they go, whatever they do as priests, they will never forget the needs of the poor.”
Both Fathers Croteau and Kiblinger extended invitations for others to join them in service to the Church of Belize.
“Persevering through formation to the priesthood has been a great gift for me,” Fr. Kiblinger said. “We need coworkers. I pray that the Lord sends more workers down here so we can continue and improve upon our impact here. It’s challenging. It’s stimulating. And it’s a good life.”